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Forgotten stories no more: Remembering the 2,600 Peorians still buried under the razed Moffatt Cemetery

A rendering of the Freedom and Remembrance Memorial planned for the corner of Griswold and SW Adams in Peoria.
Freedom and Remembrance Memorial project team
A rendering of the Freedom and Remembrance Memorial planned for the corner of Griswold and SW Adams in Peoria.

When the Moffatt cemetery on Peoria's South Side was razed in the 1950s, it was more than just tombstones that were lost. It was the stories of the hundreds of people buried there.

The rediscovery of the old Moffatt Cemetery begins with Bob Hoffer's genealogical quest to find out where his wife's great-grandfather was buried.

"He died in 1885. (He was a) Swedish immigrant. Worked in the rail yard, so there might not be an obituary," Hoffer said. "And it took almost a year before I got the first clue. The first clue was found in a coroner's report that said that his wife had him buried at Moffatt. So that started the search. What is Moffatt? Where was it?"

Old Peoria County undertaker reports contain some of the hints which led Bob Hoffer to details about his wife's great-grandfather - and the story of the Moffatt Cemetery.
Freedom and Remembrance Memorial project team
Old Peoria County undertaker reports contain some of the hints which led Bob Hoffer to details about his wife's great-grandfather - and the story of the Moffatt Cemetery.

That discovery began Hoffer's deep dive into documents at the Peoria Public Library. He found the cemetery was founded by Aquilla Moffatt for his family and friends in the 1840s. Following the American Civil War, Moffatt set aside a portion of the property for Union veterans.

By the 1870s, an aging Aquilla Moffatt turned over the cemetery's management to a new association. Hundreds of new burials continued on the property through 1905, when the city shut down the cemetery for alleged mismanagement by the association.

There it sat abandoned until the 1950s, when one of the heirs of the cemetery association secured title to the property, and sought to have the cemetery declared defunct so the land could be rezoned for light industrial usage. Court records claimed all the people interred at the site were either already removed -or would be - before redevelopment.

Bob Hoffer's search turned up about 100 people who were reburied at Springdale Cemetery. But he believes most are still buried on the old Moffatt site.

"I found (the old undertaker reports) through help with the people at the county clerk. We found them in the basement, and the first one they found, as luck would have it covered the period in which my wife's great grandfather had died. And sure enough, we went back to Christmas Day 1885. And there was the entry for him. And that confirmed the coroner report of that date and the fact that he was buried at Moffatt.

The memorial banner currently strung on a fence near the former site of the Moffatt Cemetery in South Peoria.
Freedom and Remembrance Memorial Project Team
The memorial banner currently strung on a fence near the former site of the Moffatt Cemetery in South Peoria. Additional names have been added to the list of veterans interred at Moffatt since this banner was created in 2017.

"So in looking at these records, I noticed there was just a very high percentage of burials on each page designated to have been made at Moffatt. So I started counting this up and it wound up being about 2,600 people that were buried there," Hoffer said. "So there was no way that they could have moved all of them without some significant notoriety and record of it."

Today, the former Moffatt Cemetery is home to a truck repair shop and a large storage yard. A banner on a chain-link fence recognizing the dozens of U.S. military veterans buried there is currently the only marker memorializing the old cemetery site.

But that's about to change. The new Freedom and Remembrance Memorial on the old Moffatt home property will feature three markers, commemorating the cemetery's history, the veterans still buried there, and the legacy of a woman also interred on the site.

How a Pekin woman solidified Illinois' status as a free state - and started Abraham Lincoln down his abolitionist path

Nance Legins-Costley was the first Black person freed from slavery through the efforts of Abraham Lincoln, in a seminal 1841 court case.

Nance's story likely begins in December 1813, if the records from the period are accurate. Legins-Costley was born in the territory that would later become Illinois. She was the daughter of an enslaved family brought to the future state as collateral for a mortgage.

Pekin Public Library local history specialist Jared Olar said although Illinois was ostensibly a free territory at the time, the institution of slavery existed in all but name through the legal practice of indentured servitude.

"The idea of indentured servitude is well, you're working for a contracted number of years. You have to work off the contract, and you enter into the contract voluntarily, allegedly," Olar said. "Now in practice, this was slavery by any other name. Because simply, it was very easy for masters to pressure their indentured servants to stay in, and to enter into another contract when the other one ended, even though it was supposedly voluntary. So Illinois had slavery without having slavery."

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
The cover of "NANCE: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln: A True Story of Nance Legins-Costley" by Carl Adams.

So-called indentured servitude was the status Nance lived under from her birth, said Carl Adams, author of the book Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln.

"Nancy was born in Illinois. She was not brought in from anywhere else, and you can't get an infant to sign an indenture contract, because they can't sign anything until they are of legal age, which in Illinois it was early established males, (age) 21; and females, 18," Adams said. "And so she never had a contract to sign. And when she was given a contract during the first trials of Nance in Springfield in 1826, she refused and said, 'No, I'm not.'"

Nance was just 13 years old at the time. Adams said she lost that court case simply because she was orphaned, and it was deemed by a judge she needed to remain in the home of a white man for her own protection so as to avoid kidnapping by slave traders. She also lost appeals in 1827 and 1828.

Nance eventually was moved from Thomas Cox's home in southern Illinois to that of Nathan Cromwell, a founder of Pekin and perhaps Central Illinois' wealthiest man at the time.

By the time Nathan Cromwell died in 1836, Nance was in her mid-20s, and ready to fight for her freedom once more.

"Nance was pregnant with her first baby. And she knew enough about slavery to know that the future of her child was at risk, so long as she was at risk as an indentured servant," Adams said. "She hadn't signed a contract, but she had to go to court to make sure that it didn't adversely affect her first baby."

The crux of the case was contained in a $376 promissory note David Bailey of Pekin signed for Nance's transfer shortly before Cromwell's death. Nance protested the transfer, saying she wasn't anyone's property to trade because she never signed an indentured servitude contract. Bailey, who had abolitionist leanings, agreed, and said because Nance didn't have to work for him, his obligation to pay the debt to Cromwell was negated.

A portrait of a young Abraham Lincoln, dating to 1846 or 1847.
By Nicholas H. Shepherd, Based On The Recollections Of Gibson W. Harris. - This Image Is Available From The United States Library Of Congress Prints And Photographs Division Under The Digital ID Cph.3a14822. Public Domain.
A portrait of a younger Abraham Lincoln, dated to 1846 or 1847.

But when the elder Cromwell died, his son William tried to collect on the promissory note. The case goes to Tazewell County Court in Bailey versus Cromwell. Abraham Lincoln is hired to represent Bailey.

The issue was, can you assume and presume that a Black person is a slave? And apparently from notes that were discovered in the 1950s, Lincoln had asked at least one or two of the justices in the case, 'Do you by any chance have a indenture contract? Do you by any chance have proof that you are not a slave?' And of course, the white justice is going 'Why would I need proof that I don't that I'm not a slave?' (Lincoln) says, 'Well, equally, if she doesn't have any paperwork that says she's a slave, then you have to assume that she's not," said Adams. "Simple argument."

Bailey loses that case in 1839, but he appealed. It eventually ends up before the Illinois Supreme Court in Springfield in 1841, where Nance finally won the freedom she'd always asserted.

Olar of the Pekin Public Library said the court ruling issued by Justice Sydney Breese on July 23, 1841 makes it clear the case wasn't simply about Bailey's debt, but the wider issue of enslavement.

"He's very clear that as far as Illinois law is concerned and the Illinois constitution, it doesn't matter whether you're white or Black, you cannot sell a free person," said Olar. "You cannot force them into labor against their will in the state. And it's regardless of color. So that was a very important ruling to get on the law books in Illinois. And it did end up finally putting an end to (indentured servitude) over the course of the next few years. Indentured servitude finally just dies away in Illinois, so that Illinois is confirmed as a free state. That a free state really means a free state, not free with exceptions."

Nance and her husband, Ben Costley, end up raising eight kids in Pekin and living in Central Illinois for most of the next half century. She eventually ends up living in an apartment at 226 North Adams in downtown Peoria. That's on the current site of Caterpillar. If the apartment building still existed today, it would be just a short walk away from the Abraham Lincoln mural on the Peoria County Courthouse.

A map circa 1896 showing the location of the Moffatt Cemetery.
1896 Atlas, Peoria Public Library
A map circa 1896 showing the location of the Moffatt Cemetery.

Nance was buried at Moffatt Cemetery following her death in 1892. It's likely she was interred near her late husband, Ben, and son, Leander.

Nothing marks the site of Nance's final resting place today, but Olar and Carl Adams are writing the language for a plaque at the Freedom and Remembrance Memorial dedicated to Nance Legins-Costley and her legacy.

"Her story will not be forgotten anymore. Because their story had been forgotten. It's a remarkable story. And she was a remarkable woman to have the kind of tenacity and strength of spirit that she had to insist on her freedom," said Olar. "And being from her background, the daughter of slaves, illiterate and poor, and living in a white society, nevertheless, she continued to insist on her freedom and want it.

"And with help of some guy named Abraham Lincoln, who with Nance's help, as it were, in a way, his thoughts on the injustice of slavery. So get the intellectual cogs going in his mind to help shape his attitudes and his thoughts on the very subject."

The Moffatt cemetery is the final resting place for more than 50 Civil War veterans - including one at the first Juneteenth

The former site of the Moffatt Cemetery on Peoria's South Side was the resting place of dozens of U.S. veterans. Most remain even now.

"We've only been able to really document a couple (who were moved). One is a Spanish-American War vet who is a relative of the Moffatt family. So when other Moffatts were moved from the former family burial ground there, they were reinterred," said Joe Hutchinson, a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Department of Illinois. "And this particular gentleman was reinterred in Springdale Cemetery. So basically, I'd say 99.9% of the individuals that were originally interred at Moffatt in the Civil War Union plot are still there."

The proposed site of the Freedom and Remembrance Memorial sits on a section of the former Moffatt Cemetery near Griswold and SW Adams.
Freedom and Remembrance Memorial project team
The proposed site of the Freedom and Remembrance Memorial sits on a section of the former Moffatt Cemetery near Griswold and SW Adams.

Some of the veterans buried at Moffatt are early settlers of the city who were granted land in the Peoria area in lieu of a military pension. Most of the 50 or so Union veterans buried at Moffatt were privates or corporals. A military surgeon and second lieutenant marking the highest-ranked soldiers laid to rest there.

Hutchinson said many of the veterans buried at Moffatt were farmers or working-class laborers. There were a myriad of reasons people joined the Union Army as the Civil War broke out.

"Maybe they had a bad home life they want to get away from. Maybe they want a sense of adventure. Maybe they heard Abraham Lincoln's call for troops and just wanted to join up," said Hutchinson. "Maybe it was peer pressure. Maybe the boy next door was joining up and he thought, you know, I'm gonna join up, too."

Hutchinson said this last reason was probably why his great-grandfather joined the 77th Illinois Infantry back in 1862, when he was just 16 or 17 years old. His cousins and other people from the Oak Hill area in rural Peoria County were also enlisting at that time.

After the war, many of these men returned home with nowhere to turn.

'Like troops today, some of them came back with no physical issues. Some came back, grievously wounded. Some came back with wounds that weren't visible. So what happened to these men? Prior to the Civil War, there were no real organizations available to help returning veterans from battle," Hutchinson said.

Former Civil War surgeon Dr. Benjamin Stevenson founded the Grand Army of the Republic in Decatur in 1866 to assist returning veterans. It was the grandfather of veterans' organizations like today's VFW and AMVETS.

Courtesy Greenhut Memorial GAR Hall / Central Illinois Landmarks Foundation

Peoria's Grand Army of the Republic chapter was founded in 1879. The construction of the organization's opulent headquarters was largely funded by Peoria whiskey baron and Civil War vet Joseph Greenhut. The hall still stands today at the corner of Hamilton and Madison in downtown Peoria.

A marker for the veterans at Moffatt was erected by Peoria's GAR chapter in 1920, shortly before the group's 1926 dissolution. But the memorial was eventually placed into storage, and not rediscovered until the 1990s. The original marker now stands by the Peoria GAR Hall.

That means another memorial marker was needed for Freedom and Remembrance. It also gave Hutchinson a chance to correct some errors on the century-old original. The area Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War raised the money for a new 110-pound, 44 by 51 inch plaque inscribed with the names of the men buried at Moffatt who served with the Union Army in the Civil War. Hoffer and Hutchinson picked it up from an Indiana foundry just before Memorial Day.

The blue metal plaque lists the names of the veterans in two columns of neat, gold letters. One of those men was Nathan Ashby.

The new permanent plaque honoring the veterans buried at the site of the Moffatt Cemetery in South Peoria.
Freedom and Remembrance Memorial project team
The new permanent plaque honoring the veterans buried at the site of the Moffatt Cemetery in South Peoria.

The 24-year-old Black man from Pekin was one of four Central Illinois men from that family who joined the 29th regiment of the United States Colored Infantry during the Civil War. The Pekin Public Library's Jared Olar said that unit is particularly notable.

"The 29th U.S. Colored Infantry was one of the regiments that was there on the first Juneteenth, and so the Ashbys, Bill Costley, and another one from Tazewell County, from Elk Grove Township, Thomas Tumbleson, these five just from Tazewell County were there," Olar said.

Bill Costley was the son of Nance Legins-Costley. As a baby, he was freed from a future of involuntary servitude by the Illinois Supreme Court decision in his mother's favor.

Marking the memory of Moffatt Cemetery with a monument

These are just a few of the thousands of stories of the people buried at Peoria's razed Moffatt Cemetery.

Hoffer hopes to find many more through the fruition of the Freedom and Remembrance Memorial.

"You talk about keeping the stories of them alive, and that is extremely important. But you think about it. There are 2,600 stories that are buried down there. And many of them are interesting," said Hoffer. "Some of them are probably the preponderance of them would be relatively mundane, just normal citizens, people doing their work living in Peoria. A lot of them were children. A lot of them were infants."

Hoffer offers up one example of yet another Moffatt story. A soldier buried in the cemetery served with the Virginia militia in 1792. Daniel Boone provided the militia's supplies and stores. In a twist of fate, Boone's great-grandson, Jesse Boone Holliday, lived in Peoria and was also buried at Moffatt Cemetery.

"These are the kinds of stories that we don't know yet how many like this are there, but it is an opportunity as we share the names and the members of the families become aware of their ancestors buried there, that the stories like this will continue to come to light," Hoffer said.

A local roofers union has donated the land at the corner of Griswold and Adams to the city. The Peoria Park District is installing the markers, and the city of Peoria will work with the Park District on maintaining the site.

A rendering of "Phase One" of the envisioned Freedom and Remembrance Memorial near the corner of SW Adams and Griswold Streets in Peoria.
Freedom and Remembrance Memorial Project team
A rendering of "Phase One" of the envisioned Freedom and Remembrance Memorial near the corner of SW Adams and Griswold Streets in Peoria.

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali said she's a big supporter of the memorial project. The mayor said the city leadership in the 1950s dropped the ball by allowing the Moffatt Cemetery's destruction.

"Many people that are buried there. Those families, we have to memorialize, and remember that we kind of walked away from a cemetery and built over it. We built infrastructure over these, these bodies. And so it's a very shameful thing that happened many, many years ago," said Ali.

Ali said she only learned about the Moffatt Cemetery a year ago. She believes the Freedom and Remembrance Memorial could serve as an important beacon at the entrance to South Peoria, and draw tourists.

"We definitely support that, and I think it brings education to our community, acknowledges the history and acknowledges the local leadership, that we have in actually recognizing our history and and memorializing these individuals and families," she said.

The Freedom and Remembrance Memorial also has the support of Peoria City Manager Patrick Urich.

"I think it's an important story that needs to be documented and memorialized, and we at the city wholeheartedly support the efforts of Mr. Hoffer and the group that is very concerned about trying to memorialize the people that are interred there," he said.

Peoria Park District's executive director Emily Cahill agrees.

"We all are, you know, absolutely, I think obligated to make this a reality because it is an important part of Peoria's story, and we need to tell it," Cahill said.

1st District City Councilmember Denise Jackson also supports the memorial effort.

"I'm just excited. I'm just excited. And I hope that that story gets out there and children hear about it, so that we can know what has happened in our community. And so I think it's a wonderful project," she said.

Hoffer said the three planned markers at Griswold and Adams dedicated to the cemetery, the veterans buried there, and the story of Nance Legins-Costley is just the beginning.

"We realized that a rather ambitious idea for a very large memorial on that corner was probably not going to be achievable in short order, and that developing a first phase that had a significant physical presence, as these three large markers will do, would provide a launching point for a larger effort," said Hoffer.

The Moffatt veteran's plaque is set to go on display at the Peoria Riverfront Museum soon in an effort to raise awareness. Hoffer and the other backers of the Freedom and Remembrance Memorial project are hoping to recruit new leaders to take the reins for future phases of the memorial's development.

You can learn more about the Freedom and Remembrance Memorial by visiting their website or their Facebook page.

WCBU's Joe Deacon contributed to this report.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.